Barbaro, Laminitis, and Learning to Let Go

Bloged in Barbaro by admin Thursday February 1, 2007

While the horse world is still mourning the loss of
Barbaro, more details about what led to the decision to
euthanize him are coming to light. Jennie Rees of the
Louisville Courier-Journal reports today that Barbaro, in
addition to having an abscess and two extra pins
surgically implanted in his left hind leg, had developed
laminitis in both front feet.The threat of laminitis, from the outset of Barbaro’s
recovery, was lurking as the greatest obstacle to his
survival. The disease occurs when the hoof lamina, tissue
supplying blood and connecting the exterior of the hoof
coffin bone to the hoof wall, is weakened or dies
completely.

Laminitis most often occurs when a horse’s digestive
tract, after the animal has overeaten on rich grain or
pasture, experiences a change in its bacterial
composition. The change will release toxins into the
horse’s blood, interfering with blood circulation in the
hooves.

But it can also occur, as it did with Barbaro, when one
or more of the horse’s legs has to bear a
disproportionate amount of weight, so that an extended
period of lameness in one leg almost guarantees laminitis
in another.

Because horses, as prey animals, are not physiologically
designed to spend long periods off their feet–although
Barbaro, it has been reported, was very smart about lying
down to sleep at night–there is little chance that they
can keep weight off an injured foot long enough for
complete healing. So their other legs have to compensate,
and, unfortunately, they are not designed to do so.

A healthy horse will normally bear two-thirds of its
weight on its front feet; this means that, with a horse of
one thousand pounds, two front hooves the size of a large
man’s hands are each carrying about 340 pounds.

Barbaro’s front hooves, since last July, when he had
laminitis surgery on his left rear hoof, had very likely
been under strain; that they remained laminitis–free for
as long as they did is a testament to the quality of care
he was receiving.

Barbaro is not the first Kentucky Derby winner to have
succumbed to laminitis; Foolish Pleasure, who ironically
was the winner of the 1975 match race in which the great
filly Ruffian, like Barbaro, shattered an ankle; Sunday
Silence, who won the race from his arch-rival Easy Goer
in 1989, and went on to be the greatest stallion in
Japanese racing history; and, of course, the
incomparable Secretariat, considered by many to be the
greatest racehorse who ever lived, were all euthanized
because of the disease.

Unfortunately for Foolish Pleasure and Sunday Silence,
their handlers, in attempts to save them, prolonged their
suffering.

The willingness of Barbaro’s owners, Roy and Gretchen
Jackson, to keep his welfare paramount, even when it
meant losing him, is the bright spot I see in his tragic
ending.

If other owners of “important” horses, faced with the
same decision, instead of trying for economic or
sentimental reasons to save their animals, will from now
on emulate the Jacksons, Barbaro’s legacy will be special
indeed.

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